Workplace Bullying from out of Nowhere? How Stress and Change can create Sudden Bully Syndrome


Workplace Bullying from out of Nowhere? How Stress and Change can create Sudden Bully Syndrome

I received a call from a very powerful nonprofit in Washington DC. The COO contacted me because one of their senior managers, a highly valued and key employee, who was always a bit “rough around the edges” was suddenly behaving in ways that were aggressive, abusive, and frankly beyond acceptable.

His “rough around the edges” behavior was typically of an abrasive person – he would interrupt people, give orders that were confusing, but he knew his job and most of the time got along with everyone. He could set objectives, meet them, support and mentor his subordinates and get along. He delivered and he was respected.

However, his new behavior included screaming at his colleagues and subordinates, setting unrealistic deadlines on projects, countermanding other managers instructions, slamming doors, and gossiping about others. In short, he was behaving like a classic bully. He didn’t realize that his behavior was threatening his job. The COO and President were at the end of their tolerance for his conduct.

Workplace Bullying and The Fear of the Unknown

Given this radical change in his behavior, my first thought was “what has changed in the organization or in his private life?” As it turns out, the organization was facing major expansion and everyone’s responsibilities were in flux. It looked to me that while he was on board with the changes, he couldn’t handle the ambiguities brought about by the changes, and feared that the things he loved most about the organization would disappear. He was suffering from “fear of the unknown”. This is a temporary and curable problem.

Workplace Bullying Intervention Works

By consulting with the COO, we tested my hypothesis. It turned out that I was correct: fear of the unknown was driving his behavior. Once we understood the underlying and unique causes of his fear, I worked with the COO to help this employee became aware of the extent of his behavior, the risks to the organization, and the consequences to him, if he continued. In addition we showed the impact of his fears on his behavior and upon the organization. Finally we gave him guidelines, new behavior strategies, and better ways to communicate with his colleagues.

Accomplishments of the consulting:

  • Saved this key employee
  • Saved the huge costs of replacing this key employee
  • Improved cooperation among all top employees
  • His behavior improved
  • He stepped up to a new and more powerful leadership role
  • He stopped complaining about change – and undermining authority
  • His values and expertise were used more effectively
  • He stopped being a problem

If you are having a problem with an employee whose behavior has suddenly declined to the point that you are thinking “bully”, then contact me. I can help you with strategies that will address the root of the problem and give you the support you need.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. You can contact me here.